Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Christus Factus Est: Tenebrae at Mater Ecclesiae

This past Holy Week, I had the high privilege of singing Tenebrae at Mater Ecclesiae Roman Catholic Church in Berlin, NJ, which, as regular readers probably know by now, uses exclusively the Traditional Rite of the Church.

Tenebrae, for those who may be unsure, is Matins and Lauds of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Fr. Zuhlsdorf has an excellent post which explains more about these mysterious ceremonies.

Having never been involved in, let alone witnessing, Tenebrae in the Traditional Rite before this year, I must confess to being completely unprepared for how profoundly moving an event it is. Four of us joined the Rector, Fr. Pasley, in choir and sang the various Responsories, Antiphons and Psalms, and the Lections from the Liber Usualis. Some in the congregation, which was clearly absorbed in prayer, joined us for the chanting of the Psalms, which is not an easy thing to do. The service each day took approximately two to two and a half hours, but it never felt that long. Perhaps it was a bit like experiencing the timelessness of eternity.

Fr. Zuhlsdorf has pointed out that the chants for Tenebrae are among the most beautiful of the whole Church year. He's right. Even the tones for the Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet are a priceless treasure. On Saturday at Mater Ecclesiae, the chants were augmented by polyphonic settings of Tomas Luis de Victoria, the most popular of which is probably the exquisitely beautiful O vos omnes. The most striking, however, was clearly the setting of the Aestimatus sum, the text of which discusses descending into the lake. Accordingly, even the treble parts of the polyphonic choir were singing low e's. This musical descent heightened the text in remarkable ways.

The highest praise, however, shall be reserved for the end of the Tenebrae service. After the final Psalm is completed, the Benedictus is sung, after which all the lights in the church are turned off. There is complete darkness, since even the one candle that remains, the Christ candle, has been removed. This symbolizes the Lord's burial in the tomb.

Then the choir intones the most beautiful chant of all the service, Christus factus est. On each successive day, more is added to this chant, and each additional part soars even higher than the previous part. This chant strikes at a central aspect of the Paschal mystery: the Lord's obedience to the Father in order to deliver us from our disobedience. After the recitation of the Miserere, there is a short prayer said by the priest.

Then the strepitus begins--the noise that symbolizes the earthquake that took place at Christ's death, which is made by banging books on the choir stalls. While this symbolism maintains, it is also as if, with the strepitus, we're begging Christ to come out of the tomb, especially on Holy Saturday. While the strepitus is still going on, the Christ candle--the Light which the darkness cannot overcome--is brought back out and replaced in the hearse, and all depart in silence.

This is an incredibly moving part of the ceremony. It was enhanced, of course, by the careful preparation of those at Mater Ecclesiae who have charge over some aspect of the liturgy. The altar servers always know exactly what they're doing, and the music is top notch. The Tenebrae services at Mater Ecclesiae proved that churches don't have to do crazy things to capture the imagination of the faithful, such as using bowling balls, thunder sheets and strobe lights for the strepitus. In fact, the Church's Tradition is more than enough to capture the hearts and minds of the people in the pews; we simply need to allow that Tradition to flourish.

On Saturday morning at the conclusion of Tenebrae, we left a church that was dark, save for one candle. It had been bright, and there had been many candles, but it became dark and only one candle remained. Later that evening, the church was once again darkened, with only one candle lit. This time, however, the light increased. First one candle, then two, then three, then many, until the whole church was filled with the Lumen Christi. This light is the fire of faith, which burns so strongly at Mater Ecclesiae and at many churches throughout the world. May the Morning Star which knows no setting find this flame still burning--Christ, the Morning Star who, returning from the grave, shone His light upon mankind.

Christus resurrexit.

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